All For a Song: Lessons from the World of Songwriting

Pain is pain, hunger is hunger, joy is joy and to call them anything other in the hopes of making your story seem to be more important may well be putting your reader on the outside rather than bringing him or her inside.  Great songwriters overcome this challenge and, from them, we can learn some valuable lessons about writing.

In some recent posts, I have explored the idea that when it comes to writing a proposal, fewer, well-chosen words can be the most powerful way to convey an idea or information.  Certainly, Tony Proscio touches upon this idea more than once in his treatise “In Other Words” (see my prior blog post about Mr. Proscio’s work) where jargon tends to obscure rather than clarify.  And certainly, repetition and long-winded narrative does too; writing this brings to mind Martin Teitel’s wonderful acronym that is banded about foundation halls — MEAGO, which stands for “my eyes are glazing over.”

As someone who has been writing proposals for 25 years, I have found new inspiration about the power of simple words chosen carefully from a surprising source: the realm of the singer-songwriter.  In a radio interview a few years back, songwriter Jeffrey Foucault said “I think my songs became more powerful once I learned how to pare down my lyrics and trust the listener to fill in the rest.”

Think about it, great songs rely on the imagination of the listener who, given just enough words and imagery, will come to his or her own conclusion as to how those words resonate with his or her life experience.  Here is a line from Foucault’s song “Northbound 35”: “You were as much in my hands as water, or darkness, or nothing can ever be held.”  No doubt he is carefully choosing images that any listener will understand.  We come into contact with water and darkness each and every day of our lives so these words need little, if any, explanation.   But the line is about so much more; when I hear it, I think of fleeting touches, evasion, loss, emptiness.

So, how to make the creative, highly personalized world of songwriting jibe with what can be the static, facts/outcome driven world of a grant proposal?  Here are the lessons I have learned:

Its okay to leave space on the page.  Ilene Mack, formerly of the William Randolph Hearst Foundation says “You don’t have to tell us everything.   We read a lot.  We know more than you think we do.  We can fill in the gaps.”

Tell stories that engage the listener.  One of the greatest storytelling songwriters working today is the talented Jason Isbell who writes about hardscrabble lives in the modern South.  His songs are powerful, expressive and incredibly plain spoken.  Charles Hamilton says “Foundations don’t give millions for research.  They give millions to save lives.” So, tell us about a life you are trying to save.

Use themes to inspire.   What makes a song memorable is its hook.  It can be a melodic idea.  Or a big, bombastic theme.  Rock superstars U2 are incredibly adept at writing inspiring stadium anthems, all based on pretty simple hooks backed by ringing guitars.  Center the message in your proposal around an inspirational idea.  A few that I pulled out of some recent work:

  • “We offer children from the city a life-changing summer experience”
  • “We are helping motivated high school students build a pathway to a college degree”
  • “When we strengthen a family, we nurture a child.”

Studying great songs gives us insights to great writing — taking complex and even painful themes and with simple, well-chosen words opening a window for a listener.  The same can be true for a grant proposal or a case statement or a mail appeal.  No doubt, we have great stories to tell.  Find our voice and sing them out loud.

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2 comments

  1. Pingback: Getting results, avoiding mistakes | Creative Trust | Capacity building for the performing arts


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